By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

1. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee, pp. 5-32

The Privileges: A Novel1.
The title sounds almost like one that might have been used by the author of Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice. Or maybe it seems that way because of observations like this:
She wasn't completely sure why the idea should appeal to her at all -- the big schmaltzy wedding, the sort of wedding for which everyone would have to make travel plans -- but she didn't make a habit of questioning her wants.... Warren expressed himself by opening up his checkbook, a consequence, to tell the truth, of which Cynthia had not been unmindful. 
Or this:
The flatness of Cynthia's stomach, the way she carries herself with such immodesty in a body whose nearness to the modern ideal is bound to provoke an unpredictable range of response: self-satisfied women are often brought low in this world, and for years now, mostly by frowning, Ruth has tried to sneak her insights onto the record.
Jane Austen updated, with the swift, economical moral insights translated into the contemporary ethos.

Or maybe it's because the milieu, the privileged classes, is equivalent to that of Austen's Regency gentry. Or even because of the inversion: The novel begins where Austen's typically end -- at a wedding.

Cynthia Sikes is marrying Adam Morey on a sweltering September day in Pittsburgh, a city alien to them both, but the home of Cynthia's mother, Ruth, and stepfather, Warren Harris. Cynthia and Adam are twenty-two years old, "young to be married these days," as Dee observes. And the bride and groom and their friends "affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it all, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere."

The narrative of this section is present tense, a novelist's device usually resorted to for a sense of participative immediacy, or perhaps for the feeling that we are watching a movie being screened for us. The point of view is omniscient, beginning with Cynthia and shifting from Cynthia to Ruth to Cynthia's stepsister, Deborah, to Adam in just the first four pages. We are more than the fly on the wall: We are a fly with the privilege of eavesdropping on people's thoughts.

Like most modern couples Cynthia and Adam have been living together, and only the pressure from Ruth has made them marry in Pittsburgh rather than in New York, where they live. Ruth has been insistent on integrating her new husband into the family, which means that he also is footing the bill for the wedding. Ruth has also pressed Warren's daughter, Deborah, into the wedding party as a bridesmaid, to Cynthia's dismay, because means Deborah is staying in the house, which has only one spare bedroom, instead of Cynthia's maid of honor and best friend, Marietta. "But family obligations are perverse. It makes no sense at all that this palpably hostile sexless geek should be one of her bridesmaids, and one of Cynthia's many close friends' feelings hurt as a result; yet here she is." And as it is, Deborah has to sleep on the couch.

Adam is waking up in his room in the Athletic Club, where he is staying, along with his parents and his younger brother and best man, Conrad, as well as the "friends of the bride and groom -- couple friends who have brought especially serious or promising dates -- almost all of whom find themselves acting, at that hour, on a sexual impulse that's unsettlingly strong even for the bloom of youth.... They are not used to the licentiousness of hotel rooms," and the expensive, "stuffy" club awakens in them "a sense of orgy that makes them want to offend strangers, to exert themselves until the wall of the place come down."

Adam goes down to the dining room to join his parents and Conrad. We learn that Adam's father "was a pipe fitter who became a full-time union executive until his disabilities [he has had two heart attacks] forced him to retire. The Pittsburgh Athletic Club is exactly the kind of place that sets him off. His wife has made him put on a coat and tie for breakfast even though she will now have to hear about it for the next month." Conrad is embarrassed by his parents' out-of-placeness, but Adam is good-natured about it, even provoking his father by commenting on how much the rooms here cost. When his father says, "I'm just glad I'm not the sap paying for this," his mother replies, "More reason to be glad we never had girls." Dee follows this up with a marvelously precise observation: She "laughs as if she were being filmed laughing."

Adding to this neatly observed social commentary, Dee now switches to the point of view of the wedding planner, Masha, who has just "sent her son and his friend to the florist's in her van, praying they haven't stopped to get high along the way. It's why she doesn't pay them in advance." Masha doesn't particularly care for Cynthia or her mother, but she restrains herself from having the morning drink that she wants because "while she's on the job alcohol is out of the question. Something like that gets out and your reputation is shot." She's certain that Ruth "is one of those chronically unsatisfied types who love nothing better than to nurse along some scandal, substantiated or otherwise." Masha sees herself less as a servant of people than as a keeper of the peace, "a guardian of something, a finger in the dike holding back total indifference toward the few things that have always mattered, ritual and devotion and commitment."

Cynthia and Marietta are having their hair done by a Polish woman (recommended by Masha) and her assistant. Cynthia longs for a cigarette. "'Please no,' the older one says, her scissors in the air. 'Big kiss on altar, your husband think hey, my wife's head smell like fucking ashtray.'" Cynthia and Marietta's "eyes meet in the mirror, already retelling it." (Which Marietta does later in the chapter.) When they return to the house, Deborah is outside smoking a cigarette, which makes Cynthia tell Marietta to turn the car around and go someplace she knows. "Deborah watches them leave and smiles at the prospect of her stepmother's panic. Mother and daughter are so alike. No capacity for seeing themselves through others' eyes, no interest in it. No one ever opens a book in that whole god damned stunted hell-bound house." We have already learned that Deborah is a graduate student in something.

Deborah is right: Ruth is panicking. "It upheld Ruth's view of life, her own life at least, to think that the things that mattered to her were, in everyone else's estimation, a joke. Thirty-eight thousand dollars her husband has sunk into this day -- more than the old days gave them any right to dream of -- and Cynthia has barely acknowledged him." But Ruth is more annoyed by "Cynthia's supreme, blithe competence." Ruth will worry and fret and panic but she "knows, in her heart of hearts, that Cynthia will be there" at the appointed moment. She wants to be in control, but her control isn't needed.

Sure enough, just as the wedding party is assembling for the photographs, Cynthia "walks in, ahead of her own entourage like a prize-fighter, in the dress, the makeup, the veil and gloves, the full regalia." Her father, "looking like a movie star," is the last to arrive. "Life does not seem versatile enough to account for the fact that this man and Cynthia's mother once fell in love and got married." Deborah, meanwhile, has taken an interest in Conrad "because there's something in his face that she doesn't see in the Barbie faces of everyone else in the room." They are standing next to each other for the photograph, and he confesses his nervousness about the toast he has to give at the reception as best man. "That's what it is about him, she thinks, a recognizable human emotion." She tugs at her dress to try to cover up her tattoo.
"The church is a furnace," and even though Masha has sent her "red-eyed son and his Mexican friend, whom she secretly calls Señor Detention" to Wal-Mart to buy up all the fans, one of the ushers, Sam, passes out before the procession. During the ceremony, Marietta "keeps thinking about the ceremony itself, how many of its accepted elements seem wrong on symbolic grounds and should be changed" and realizing that the ceremony is a separation of her from Cynthia, with whom she "would normally share her subversive interest in the day's many weirdnesses, but who's on the other side of the glass now." She also "watches Cynthia's father, that charming piece of shit," who "looks like Washington standing in the boat. Knowing how to behave on grand occasions has never been his problem; it's the ordinary that could never sustain his interest."

Cynthia's father remains an enigma throughout this section, even at the reception, where the closest we get to finding out more about him is a comment after he has danced with his daughter, then "graciously" handed her off to Warren: "This has always been the rhythm of his fatherhood: dazzlement and aftermath. All day long he has endured the look of deep surprise in the eyes of nearly everyone to whom he has been introduced. He knows he as things to be forgiven for, but he considers his daughter's love full vindication, and for those who can't let go of the past he has never had any use." But what his transgressions may have been, we aren't told -- in fact, we aren't even told his first name.

"Twenty-two is a zone of privilege" -- that is, I think, the first use of the title word in the novel. And back at the hotel that night, "the urge to transgress is finally breaching its borders." The night bellman finds that in the men's room "three tuxedoed wedding guests have pried the mirror off the wall and are hunched over it," but the staff is too "intimidated and unsure of protocol and badly outnumbered" to do anything about what's going on. Sam, the usher who passed out, is hitting on a waitress; Marietta and her boyfriend are in the gym acting out "a particular fantasy"; and Conrad finds waiting in his hotel room "the antisocial, truth-advocating, tattooed bridesmaid, Deborah."

Even when the bar closes and the band quits playing, "there are still twenty or thirty people in and around the ballroom, drunk, tired, euphoric, young, beautiful, sweaty, dressed up and on someone else's nickel, and determined -- as who wouldn't be? -- to remain all those things forever."

Only the bride and groom are having a quiet night: Adam has passed out without taking off his clothes, and Cynthia is cradling his head in her lap. "She's not disappointed. Sex is no novelty; being exhausted together, being each other's safe place -- that's what tells you you've found what everybody's always whining about searching for.... Tomorrow they will fly to Mexico, and when they fly back to New York Cynthia will be pregnant."

It's a tour de force of an opener, establishing characters, dropping in some puzzles, raising some expectations. It gives us a portrait of a class not only from their own point of view, but also from outsiders such as the wedding planner and more broadly from the hotel staff. And the reference to the bright young things wanting "to remain all those things forever" brings in the note of anticipatory sadness. It's a line that Fitzgerald might have used.

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